‘Uc dai loi, Cheap Charlie .. He no buy me Saigon tea ..’ is the first verse of a song sang in Vietnam by Australian soldiers and bar girls going about their trade.‘.. Saigon tea costs many
many P … Uc dai loi he Cheap Charlie ..’. It was with this song running around in my head, that I made my own‘Cheap Charlie’ dash from Vung Tau to the site of the Australian war time base at Nui Dat and the memorial cross at Long Tan.
Long Tan – two words etched into ANZAC folk law alongside names like Gallipoli, Fromelle, Changi and Kokoda.
I visited Gallipoli in 1997 and being in Ho Chi Minh City earlier this month, I felt the same attraction to see Long Tan – the site of our bloodiest battle during the Vietnam War.
It was a ‘Cheap Charlie’ trip because I didn’t want to take the official $48US Long Tan tour. (Four hours departing at eight o’clock, air-conditioned coach, lunch included along with a collectors edition embroided hat!!!) It wasn’t the money, I just wanted to see and experience Long Tan at my pace. I’d read online that the Long Tan Memorial was on a private property and access is granted only with an official guide. But, I thought: “..this is Vietnam, I’ll take my chances”.
So, arriving in Vung Tau by hydrofoil from Ho Chi Minh City I first rented a motorbike for 200,000 Dong ($11US) and enquired with the taxi drivers about Long Tan? Immediately a guy said Australian soldier’s, then a moto-taxi driver named Trin said he knew where it was and in two minutes we’d negotiated a private tour for 300,000 Dong ($16US). Then we were off … on a ‘Cheap Charlie’ run, without the limited edition hat and no time limits.
Thumping along at 50 to 60 kilometres an hour, passing the scenery not too unlike the diggers would have seen minus the paved roads and satellite dishes, in around 45 minutes we’d covered the 30 kilometres to Nui Dat. Now open fields and rubber plantations, there isn’t much to see. Two brown brick columns mark the entrance to the old Australian base. Buried in rubber trees are a couple of brick bunkers and gun emplacements. Trin said later, a cement company called ‘Long Dat Cement’ now owns the area. He says the plan is to remove the soil and gravel to manufacture cement.
Several kilometres away is the Long Tan battlefield.
Riding on, navigating the dirt tracks .. crossing the former base and 20 minutes later a large sign appears in the distance – ‘THAP TU GIA LONG TAN’ – with an arrow pointing to the left it says ‘Long Tan Cross’. The area is rubber plantation country – trees as far as the eye can see. A few minutes along another dirt road and Trin pulls over – pointing into the trees he says: ‘there .. there it is’. 150 metres from the road, is a lone white cross standing tall protected by a metal chain barrier, concrete wall and gate – surrounded by thousands of rubber trees.
Once the bikes are turned off – deep in the middle of the rubber plantation it’s dead quite and in an odd way peaceful. Trin, in broken English says: ‘.. many fighters .. Long Tan fighters .. many were Nui Dat and then Long Tan here .. VC here and ‘Uc dai lam’ (Australian) Army over there .. fighting you know .. boom boom boom .. very very sad .. before .. very sad’. I invite Trin to join us at the memorial, but he declines. Either he’d seen it one time to many or it just wasn’t his thing, it’s a memorial to foreign soldiers.
Walking the short distance from the road, my mind began to think about what the men on both sides went through that afternoon in August 1966. Where did they hide? Did they cover behind that tree or in that ditch? Officially, 108 diggers including three New Zealander’s from D Company 6RAR repelled attack after attack of between 700 and 1500 Viet Cong soldiers. For five hours, frightened, staring death down a gun barrel – they fought for their lives until reinforcements arrived from Nui Dat as night fell on the battlefield.
18 Australian’s were killed during the battle – all between 19 and 22 years old. 40 diggers were wounded. Three of the dead were married, the rest single, seven were National Servicemen called up for duty and the 11 other men were volunteers. Estimates to the number of Viet Cong dead range between 47 to 245, the official number. This higher number is disputed by Terry Burstall, a Private who survived the battle. Burstall claims only 47 VC were killed and around 700 North Vietnamese soldiers took part in the battle, half the official account.
But, do the numbers really matter? Saying we killed 29 or 227 more Vietnamese than Australian’s, does it make the victory more palatable or justified? People were killed – men who had lovers, wives, kids, families, friends and parents. There is one constant is all the battlefields I’ve visited and the same goes for Long Tan too. Years after the fighting’s ended, I always end up asking myself; What was so important about this ground that cost so many lives? Was it worth it?
On the way back to Vung Tau – we stop and grab a ‘café su-nap’ (Vietnamese coffee). I learn Trin is 48, a father of two grown boys and a girl. We talk about life. He tells me how good things are now compared to during the War. ‘We had very little to eat ..’ He says his father was killed by a mortar or bomb, leaving him to fend for himself with his mother. Never given the opportunity to go to school, Trin is now happy – his children are working and studying in Ho Chi Minh City, he tells me. I ask if he has an email address, ‘No’ he replies, ‘but I’ll give you my son’s ..’ . He writes it down and I promise to email his son a few photos and this story.
I saw Long Tan the way I wanted to see it – the wind in my face surrounded by the smells and noises of South Vietnam. Meeting Trin was a bonus. But as I said goodbye and rode off I could almost hear him hymning – ‘Uc dai loi, Cheap Charlie ..’ at the 100,000 Dong tip I’d given him!
This article first appeared on Ninemsn: http://travel.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=1043483
TRAVEL ADVICE – VUNG TAU AND LONG TAN
In Ho Chi Minh City, board the hydrofoil to Vung Tau. Cost is 180,000 Dong ($10US), trip takes one an a half hours. If you plan to return that afternoon to Ho Chi Minh City, it’s worthwhile for peace of mind to buy the return ticket at the same time.
In Vung Tau, you’ll be offered a motorbike to rent by moto-taxi riders as you walk out of the port arrivals building.
Motorbike rental is around 200,000 Dong ($11US) per day.
Enquire with the rental guy or the moto-taxi riders across the road about Long Tan, ask for directions and then offer to pay for someone to guide you there.
It is worth paying the 300,000 Dong ($16US) for a guide. Then you can ride along enjoying the sights without the worry of getting lost!
The old Australian Army base at Nui Dat is approximately 30 kilometres from Vung Tau, less than 45 minutes on a motorbike. The Long Tan Memorial is a few kilometres further on from the base. Allow between three to four hours for the Nui Dat-Long Tan tour. Wear a helmet and don’t be a ‘Cheap Charlie’ , make sure you have travel insurance!
The multi-media video clip ‘Long Tan on two wheels’ was filmed with a Olympus 6 megapixels stills camera using the movie mode.
The photographs and movie clips were first imported into a folder on the desktop and then the folder was imported into Final Cut Express 4.
‘Long Tan On Two Wheels’ was edited in Final Cut Express 4. A sepia effect was added to the finished timeline to compensate for the washed out quality of the original video images, as well as to create a 1960’s era feel to the multi-media clip.